Major Win

“It was a matter of time. Tara rode brilliantly this morning. I am so proud of her,” a beaming Elizabeth said. “Cam is the horse of the moment. He’s always been a very solid, very reliable mount for Tara. He did everything Tara asked of him this morning. I can’t be more proud of him too. I am so happy and excited for them both.”

Tara Scott Westin, USA (Traverse City, Sep 18 2021)

The $73,000 1.45m Winning Round CSI5* was the second career start for Tara, Deborah and Elizabeth, first individual career start for them, at this level. While most of everyone expected Elizabeth to notch the first major win, among the three, the one who wasn’t so sure was Elizabeth, herself. “Tara is a fantastic rider. She pushes me hard, I push her hard. Deborah, just as talented. Over the course of this season, there hasn’t been much separation in our finish times.”

Tara, what were you thinking when Elizabeth put up her time, then Deborah comes up a few slots later to tie her? “They weren’t going to make it easy. If Elizabeth rides early in a draw, she will drop the hammer and set the time to beat. This event fits her strategy. There is no jump-off, so you have no choice but go for it.”

And, when Daniel slipped in ahead of Deborah and Elizabeth? “He made it more difficult. But, this is when riding last has its advantages. You know what it’ll take to win, the tempo you need. It’s a matter of going out and execute.”

When did you realize you won? “During the ride, your focus is riding clear. You know your tempo. What you don’t know is your time until it comes up on the scoreboard. When it came up … The best part, it never gets old.”

interview: Tara being interviewed on German TV (Traverse City, Sep 18 2021)

The Trish Factor

All eyes focused on her, leading off for the new team, The Upstarts, to the MLSJ team competition.

When she arrived at Flintfields, hours earlier, she walked through liked she belonged. And, she should. She paid her dues rising through the ranks. Criticized for being a tough competitor when the sport was still heavily male-centric. Moreover, she doesn’t need to prove or explain herself to anyone.

Naturally, she drew a few stares. It was like, “Whoa, who is she?” On the circuit, so few know of her. Many do not. She relishes the role of being an unknown. The few that did know of her, they only know her by reputation. A very selective, top tier coach and instructor who doesn’t coach many riders, and develop even fewer. And, how did three unknown riders were able to attract her to their provisional MLSJ team, to compete no less.

One does not need to see farther than her impressive career stat line, “1,242 career starts and 207 career wins, ranked 12th in the world.” When she left competing, she did so on her own terms.

19 year old Trish with Midnight Majestic (Fayetteville, NC May 1983)
photo courtesy of Trish Van Hollen

Trish Van Hollen burst into the equestrian ranks as a highly regarded junior, with strong fundamentals. Well-schooled, highly disciplined, a very strong skill set. She knew when to be patient, when to put the hammer down. Her three horses, all cast-offs from other jumper programs. She renamed them with Majesty or Majestic in their names.

In her first two seasons, at the Premier AA Level, Trish said she was rather middling in her performance. “I was an average rider with an average skill set. Walker knew I was uncomfortable in the show ring. He asked me, what was wrong. I replied I didn’t know. He just told me to relax. Control the things you can control. The other stuff, ignore. Easier said than done. Looking back, I’d say the pressure was enormous. There were so few girls my age competing at that level.”

She started her third year with much to prove. The USEF was threatening to strip her of the ability to compete at the Premier AA Level. Walker was incensed they would do that to her, but figured girls, women, needed to work twice as hard to belong. “We’ll make it easy for them, Trish. You’ll outwork everyone.”

And, she did prove herself. All the hard work, the hours in the practice ring, began to pay off. Her riding began to gel. She went on a serious tear on the Premier AA circuit. It included an impressive 20-0 run in four weeks in Traverse City. It earned Trish the opportunity to compete for the American Gold Cup. She was a 19 year old upstart, a complete unknown, who didn’t have any CSI starts. Someone thought, “Invite the kid, she’ll have a good ride. Then, send her back to AA knowing she had work to do when she finishes at the bottom.” They didn’t expect Trish and Majestic Summer to dominate the event.

best with the best: Trish with SAM: Secret Agent Man (Traverse City, Sep 18 2021)

Crossing the start timers, Trish, onboard Cold Majesty, quietly and efficiently rode the course. She was giving a master class in how to ride a jumper course. She also laid down a marker. They rode clear, finishing in 69.01, in the qualification round. The best individual time in the round. Better than Elizabeth, her ace rider, who finished clear at 69.77 with the second best individual time.

Two hours later, in the medal round, again Trish quietly and efficiently rode the course. Again, she set the tone. They rode clear finishing at 68.44. Again, with the best individual time in the round. And, again, Elizabeth finishing clear at 68.96 with the second best individual time.

It was said they couldn’t finish any better than fourth place, the position they were in, entering the medal round. They, however, weren’t fading away. Instead, they closed gap to finish a very close second.

They finished with a statement.

Traverse City: Arrivals

The airport has been busy with the arrival of equestrians and their horses. It is literally a who’s of who of top-tier professionals arriving. Several competed in Tokyo; others are fresh from the Longines and Rolex professional tours in Europe. Converging to ride the main event, the American Gold Cup. The atmosphere is quite electric.

While the daughters will not be competing for the gold cup trophy themselves, there are plenty of events on the board.

One of those is the $200,000 MLSJ Team Competition CSI5*. In MLSJ team jumping, the format is the same used in the Olympics. Each team riding the event consists of four riders. Scoring, the three highest count, the lowest dropped. The first round is the qualification round, the second round is the medal round.

To round out their team, Elizabeth, Deborah and Tara needed another rider, with 4* or 5* experience. They only knew one who fits the bill perfectly. They asked Trish if she would come out to compete with them in the team event. Still an active rider, Trish occasionally competes if the event is challenging. It didn’t take long for her to say yes. She flew in early Thursday morning with her horse Cold Majesty. A light practice session followed in the early  evening. While the other teams have been competing on the MLSJ tour, they are new to the fray. They compete on their own terms. Hence the team name, “The Upstarts.”

Trish and Cold Majesty (RRC, Sep 2020)

They are tough. They are strong-willed. And, oh, they are all girls.

Traverse City: American Gold Cup

Partially beneath a sea of blue. In between, a few reds. Above it, the portrait of her beloved chestnut bay, Majestic Summer.

“This is what you are riding for in the future. Everyone talks about Olympic Gold or the World Cup trophy. Nice as they are, this is the one piece of hardware everyone wants to win. The American Gold Cup. One day, each of you will get to lift this cup high in victory. It’ll be your statement that you belong.” They touched the cup much like how a priceless artifact would be touched, barely.

Very few see this room in her home. Riding glory covers every inch. All of it earned by the daughter of a North Carolina stable foreman.

What makes the American Gold Cup different? The course. The competitiveness. The prestige. “A lot makes it different,” Trish explains. “You won’t find another course of its design. Not the Olympics. Not the World Cup Finals. The course is designed to clearly separate the best from the rest of the field. The competitiveness is a who’s who of the best in the world. The prestige is competing among the best.”

the prize: The American Gold Cup (Traverse City, Sep 2020)
photo credit: Elaine Wessel/Phelps Media Group

Previously, the event was held at Old Salem Farm in Westchester County, an hour outside NYC, before moving to Traverse City in 2020.

Traverse City is a blue-collar town. In its harbor, a small fishing fleet which works Grand Traverse Bay, northern Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. It is also called the cherry capital for an obvious reason. During the summer, it becomes an equestrian town with a decidedly blue-collar feel.

In the early years, it was where a rider could learn their craft. Club, B and C level shows where a rider would gain their experience on Saturday afternoons. Soon, the level of competition began to improve. The upper Midwest was fast becoming the cradle of American equestrians. Traverse City became an important stop in the path of development. Its blue-collar setting allowed those from very modest backgrounds to compete in equestrian sports.

For more than fifty years, Traverse City has featured some of the best showjumping competition. From Premier AA level to CSI5*, every notable professional has competed here. Beezie Madden, Kent Farrington, McClain Ward, Jessica Springsteen, Kelli Cruciotti. And, a certain alumnus named Trish Van Hollen. More recently, it has added Major League Show Jumping (MLSJ) to its show portfolio. The MLSJ tour brings 5* competition to North America, with competition at the team and individual levels.

“This is the first time we are competing at this level,” Elizabeth said at the Tuesday afternoon presser. “It sends chills just to be here … where we are walking among the very best in our sport. Whether we belong, whether we can be competitive at this level, long term, only time will tell.” 

Deborah added what they have been able to accomplish this season has been remarkable. “Are we satisfied? Not really. We have been competitive, we have ridden well. By no means are we satisfied. There is room for improvement, to become better riders. Sure, every rider says that, but it is different to make it happen. It takes commitment and giving our best every time we step into the practice ring, every time we step into the show ring.”

There is plenty of x-factor when competing for the gold cup trophy. It has eluded some of the very best in McClain Ward, Shane Sweetnam, Daniel Bluman and Margie Engle. Beezie Madden is a three-time winner. Kent Farrington, two-time winner and defending champion. Mario Deslauriers, Richie Moloney, Devin Ryan, Jessica Springsteen, and Molly Ashe Cawley each have won the trophy. In showjumping, they are the household names, the rock stars of the sport.

The field is pre-selected to represent the fifty best jumpers in the world, at the moment. While Trish believes Elizabeth, Deborah and Tara are ready now, it may take another 2-3 seasons of dominating performances to become part of the select field. “The FEI can be notoriously slow in recognizing fast-rising talent. So, I wouldn’t characterize it as an oversight just yet. They likely have noticed, but want to see if they’re a flash-in-the-pan.” Griffin was disappointed they did not make this year’s field. “They have proven themselves to be very competitive, particularly this season. They’ve shown they can compete with the best and are unafraid of the competition. Clearly, they belong. They just don’t hob-nob with the blueblood crowd in the sport.”

A question was asked about whether going to medical school was a distraction. Tara laughed before answering. “I’m a daughter of a trauma surgeon, certainly the finest, in my estimation. Deborah and Elizabeth, their mom is the best surgical RN around. Growing up, it was ‘Don’t let horses distract you from your studies,’ for the three of us. School is not a distraction while we’re riding and riding is not a distraction while we’re in school.”

The CSI2*/CSI5* American Gold Cup began this morning.

While others are waiting, Elizabeth, onboard SAM: Secret Agent Man, stayed in motion, earning the win in the $5,000 1.40m Jumper Open. The prize money by EquiLine was winner-take-all.

And, so it goes.

Traverse City: Week Two

The second week of the fall series began earlier today. If the first week was any indicator of what is to come, the second week will prove to be equally competitive.

Elizabeth onboard SAM: Secret Agent Man (Traverse City, Sep 02 2021)

The daughters did well last week, with Elizabeth sweeping the four FEI events. That is not an easy task in itself. She would likely agree she is on a roll. Deborah and Tara, themselves, are doing very well too. In so much to make the podium a family affair. “They have pushed me to ride cleaner, better rounds in practice, and certainly in the show ring. Obviously, it shows in the results. Hopefully, I’m doing the same for them.”

It has left the question to be asked in the pressers, “What is the secret behind the success?” All three have said it is staying with what they know. “We haven’t really adjusted our technique all that much,” Deborah said. “We’ve studied our video, from practice and competition, breaking down the rides. Looking at the detail.” Tara chimed in, “It is what a good rider does. Knowing what is working, things that need tightening. Most importantly, staying strong with your fundamentals.”

Most have noticed the daughters have learned a few things from Trish, namely outworking everybody else. “It is a matter of staying sharp, particularly when you’re in that zone,” Elizabeth explained. “It is not necessarily riding demanding practice sessions, but keeping the fluidity, the constancy in your riding.” She added a rider knows when they need a demanding practice session. “When everyone else is in the clubhouse, we might be doing a ride around in a practice ring. Or, when everyone else might be done with riding for the day, we might be watching a video and taking notes. And, not necessarily of ourselves …”

The eyes will mostly be on Elizabeth, to see if she can replicate last week’s performance. Many are still buzzing about her win last week over a top-tier professional in the Grand Prix. “I gotta little lucky. There’s a reason why they’re ranked top 25 in the world.”

Deborah calls it, the “On any given Sunday” effect. “It was a Sunday, the weather a bit messy for much of the day. He made the mistake of leaving her an opening. Elizabeth did what she will always do, make your mistake a costly one.”

Traverse City: Turning Heads

The media tent was abuzz.

With the show closed to the public, the media pool was treated to a scintillating performance by the daughters in the opening event of the show, the $5,000 1.40m Jumper Open Class. The prize money by EquiLine was winner-take-all.

Tara on board Candace Happy Girl in the 1.40m Jumper (Traverse City, Sep 01 2021)

They had drawn three of the last four starting slots in the 26 rider field. While they have ridden bunched early in a draw, or in the middle, this was the first they rode in the last few slots of a draw. Stephanie, a 16 year old junior, from Pennsylvania, had led the event. Riding out of the #2 slot, she rode clear with a solid 67.02 round. With three professionals riding the class, her time was holding up, which made it more impressive.

It seemed no one would be able to catch Stephanie on the 13 obstacle/16 effort course. Deborah, riding from the #23 position on board Captain Andrew, put the hammer down, turning in a clear round of 62.44. Ronnie, one of the best young jumpers in the Midwest, followed. He was turning in a solid round until his horse refused at #10. He decided to wave off.

Knowing Tara and Elizabeth could beat her time, it did put pressure on the two. They would have to ride aggressive lines to catch her. It made sense since Deborah rode a fairly aggressive line herself. Riding 25th, Tara had Candace Happy Girl on nearly the same aggressive line Deborah had with Captain Andrew. Fractions of second behind Deborah at the splits, Tara was making a run over the last three fences of the course. It was going to be close. Tara finished clear at 62.47. She could finish no worst than third.

Elizabeth, riding last, entered the course on board her golden boy, Mr. Ed.  He seemed to be a poor choice on Elizabeth’s part. Most wondered, “What could she be thinking?” On a finesse course, Eddie would be the perfect choice. On a fast course, like this, Elizabeth would be in a better position with Lilith or SAM.

And, this is precisely what Elizabeth was doing, finessing the course. Riding a decidedly tactical line, she only needed to have speed through the bending line. Through the rest of the course, she could be quite conservative. Elizabeth finished clear at 62.28.

“I could have dropped the hammer with Eddie,” Elizabeth explained in the presser. “I’m a firm believer in ‘speed kills’ on a speed course. This is a case where riding last has its advantages. You kinda seen what everybody else has done. What worked, what didn’t, and incorporate that knowledge into what you want to do. You succeed, or you don’t. It’s that simple.”

Travel Day: Traverse City

The first major campaign with Deborah, Elizabeth and Tara could not have been better. Remaining on the board, three major shows to close out the season. While the hiatus freshened up all concerned, the process to prepare and ready began in earnest the day after the Denver International ended in late July.

Meeting with Arturo, Juan and Wes, Griffin laid out her plan on how things should work. All four have worked at Flintfields with other touring professionals. They know what works, and what doesn’t. The extras which would make the stay in residence better. In moving team operations from one location to another, every variable, every contingency, even the unexpected, needs to be considered and planned.

“You need to hit the ground running before you arrive.” From feed to supplies to stabling to veterinary care, particularity is essential. The responsibility for proper care of each horse requires the utmost attention. Each one has a different personality. Each one has a different dietary requirement. Each one has a different care requirement. “The money we invest for transport, stabling, entry fees and more is significant. Everything needs to be in place and must meet our exacting standard. Accept any less, we are at a competitive disadvantage. Accept any less, I have not done my job to protect my riders, to protect my horses.” This is true for every other team across the sport.

Griffin focused most of her attention on the venue. Detail, more detail, and more detail. Having undergone a major renovation over the past five years, she wanted to know more about Flintfields. It is completely different from its older self. It meant connecting with her fellow professionals with other tours. It meant talking with Flintfields staff directly. It meant taking a three-day trip to visit the facility. Griffin simply needed to be convinced it was worth the expense of coming. “If it was just a coat of fresh paint to convince Ali Griffin to spend money here, I would say, ‘Screw it, let’s save the money and roll it over into next season.’ We’re not the richest professional group on tour, so we need to spend our premium dollars wisely and carefully.”

ready to go: waiting for taxi clearance at 5:30 am (DIA, Aug 30 2021)
photo credit: Andrea Kanakredes, RN, MSN

With the arrangements set, it was an all-go for transport. It was likely we would need to wait on Qatar Airways Cargo while they shifted their aircraft around. Much of their air cargo capacity had been shifted to support the evacuation from Afghanistan. It was possible we would fly on a standard passenger Boeing 777-400 with the horses in a specially-outfitted cargo hold. We would be the only passengers, but with a full flight attendant crew and a proper breakfast. Our air cargo 777F arrived at DIA Sunday evening, non-stop from Tokyo. Got to love Qatar Air for coming through. Due to the international situation, private security was brought in to protect the plane.

At 3:00 am, Monday morning, we arrived for our check-in and loading. After passing through two security checkpoints, we arrived at the Fed Ex terminal. A working dog team from US Customs checked all of our gear, checked all of the horse gear, checked the jet stalls. The daughters had a little wonderment regarding the security layers, but this is what happens when a bad change in the threat environment occurs. Sign a couple of forms, and we were good to go.

Even with the security, Qatar Airways Cargo 2997SP, non-stop from Denver to Williamsburg, MI, departed on time at 05:50 am MT/07:50 am ET. The 3 hour, 15 minute flight would have us arriving shortly after 11:00 am in Michigan.

at 35,000 feet: sparkling white grape juice and popcorn (Qatar 2997SP, Aug 30 2021)
photo credit: Tara Scott Westin

When we arrived, we weren’t the only big cargo jet carrying horses. Three FedEx MD-11s and two Emirates 777Fs were parked on the tarmac. Another Qatar Air cargo flight was landing as we finished loading the horse transport trailer.

Today, it begins for real.

Travel Day: North Ranch

On the day we left, we circled this date on the calendar. The day of our return.

It is bittersweet in a sense, our homecoming. Exchanging the unfamiliar for the familiar. Exchanging the exciting for the everyday. The air is different. The view is different. The sounds are different.

sunset on the range (Mon, Jul 26 2021)

It is North Ranch. We are home.

    *     *     *     *

We arrived shortly before noon, on Monday. Griffin and the horses were expected to arrive an hour later. Tejano music could be heard coming from the barn. Arturo was busy finishing the barn set up he had started over the weekend, at Griffin’s request. He brought me inside the barn to show the set up. It was most impressive. “The plaques your daughters earned in New York and California here and here.” I told Arturo I appreciated the work, that he really didn’t need to do it. When I asked Arturo how much I owed him, he said nothing. Griffin would explain later when she arrived.

Griffin arrived 45 minutes later, with the horse trailer just behind. “Arturo, show me.” They walked inside the barn, with him explaining the detail work. The daughters stood outside watching. Busy unloading their gear, they hadn’t been inside the barn yet. The girls were beginning to wonder what was up. Juan and Wes arrived. Griffin asked, “Arturo, do I unload?” A puzzled Elizabeth began to ask, “What do you …” I told Elizabeth, Deborah and Tara to hold their thoughts.

Arturo smiled broadly, “Yes.”

The horses recognized their surroundings as they came off the trailer.

Elizabeth, Deborah and Tara walked into the barn. They saw the plaques and a few of ribbons from the just-ended campaign. “This is my gift to you,” Griffin spoke quietly. “Thank you for bringing me along, in trusting me. To care for you, to care for your magnificent horses. When I said, ‘this is the first time, first place, where I really felt I belonged,’ I meant every word. Thank you again.”

Summer In The Rockies: Perfection

Sunny and bright. Not a cloud in the sky. Even the haze, from distant wildfires, had dissipated during the overnight hours. You could not ask for a more perfect morning.

Saturday was bustling with activity at Colorado Horse Park. Beginning at 8:00 am, the first event of the day, a hunter class for children beginners. The day would culminate in the evening with the Grand Prix, the marquee event of show week. The Summer In The Rockies series was ending on a high note.

morning practice with Elizabeth and Lilith (CHP, Jul 17 2021)

For the daughters, and the other Grand Prix riders, the day followed the standard routine. The early morning riders’ meeting, with the blind draw for start positions. Morning workout or practice times slotted by bib number. Course walkthrough, after 4:00 pm. Anticipated event start time 7:30 pm. Additional updates would follow as needed. “Relax, stay hydrated” was the principal advisory with temperatures expected to be into the low 90s during the afternoon hours.

Except for the heat and hazy skies, the weather had been very cooperative. The only rain shower was between shows.

During the layout of the Grand Prix course, CHP received an alert an outflow boundary from a dying thunderstorm was approaching from the eastern plains. The hope was to have most of the course completed before the outflow reached CHP. With the outflow nearing, embedded with significant lightning, a delay was imposed. All events were halted. Horses returned to the barns, riders and the support crews to the indoor rings, spectators to the grandstand buildings.

a storm cometh: outflow boundary thunderstorm approaches (CHP, Jul 17 2021)

The lightning delay was soon replaced by a rain delay as torrential sheets of rain fell. When it seemed the heavy rain was ending, a new round of heavy rain began, leading to an extension of the rain delay. Two hours later, after 6:00 pm, the rain finally ended. The decision had been made, in the interim, to focus on the Grand Prix coming out of the delay. The suspended events, and the remaining Saturday events, would be carried over into the Sunday schedule.

After a one hour dry-out, the Grand Prix course was completed. The GGT surface was regroomed, sawdust added in the corners and tight turns as an absorbent and to firm the footing. At 8:15 pm, the course was approved and certified ready. The walkthrough commenced after 8:30 pm. It was unusual to see the walkthrough conducted under stadium lights. The Grand Prix riders were satisfied with the condition of the course. The footing was firm, especially in the tight corners and turns. The riders had a sense it was going to be a very long evening.

Most of the grooms walked the course with their riders, largely to determine if a cleat should be used. Griffin decided to use a short sand cleat, a cleat she used for a wet course while in The Saugerties. It was better to have a slower time with better footing in the Grand Prix round. She could remove it for the jump-off or change to another cleat.

At 9:45 pm, the Grand Prix was ready to go. Riding first on the 13 obstacle/16 effort course was Elizabeth. It was a speed course layout with very tight turns. While she thought about switching Lilith for SAM, Elizabeth decided to stay with her. Lilith’s energy level was off-the-scale strong. Elizabeth did an excellent job keeping Lilith’s energy in check.

But, it would be a while before the event started. A variety of technical issues with the timers had arisen, further delaying the start. With the technicians struggling with the timers, the first group of riders who were in warm-up were sent back to a holding area. The timer issues seemed to be multiplying. It would start, then freeze. It wouldn’t start, then start late. It would start but couldn’t accurately track time. If the timer issues could not be resolved, the event would be scrubbed and rescheduled for Sunday. It was certainly looking that would happen. The technicians decided on one last attempt at a system reset. If it didn’t reset, they would need the overnight to solve the timer issue. With fingers crossed, the timer system was reset. After the reset cycle completed, the timer system was working.

It was nearly 10:30 pm when the event was given a full-go. The first group, who were in the warm-up area, were given the all-clear to return from the holding area.

Under a steady, light rain, at almost 11:00pm, Elizabeth was cleared into the start area. Griffin did one more check on Lilith. They were good to go. Cheers were given by those who stayed, when they entered to begin their warm-up canter around the course. With 24 seconds remaining on the countdown timer, they crossed the start timers. Elizabeth had Lilith through the first four obstacles in an exceptionally fast 16.03 into the first bending line. With the short sand cleat, there was no slip in Lilith’s footing. Through the bending line and two very tight turns, into a difficult triple oxer combination. The time split over first half the course was 33.87. The more complicated portion of the course remained, four oxer combinations, two switches in direction and a pair of tight, left-right turns and another bending line.

Elizabeth stayed with her aggressive line on the course. The brush with the top rail on #9 was loud, but it stayed in place. When they cleared the 1.50 m single oxer on #13, they were out. It was a beautifully ridden round. They finished clear at 62.07. She clearly placed maximum pressure on the rest of the field. Elizabeth thought the steady, light rain had made the course faster and the footing better. “Close to perfect,” she told Griffin.

The wait was now on. Elizabeth was tracking and charting times. There were four professionals in the field, all who could very well be riding in Tokyo. Three others were in the stands watching, including their friend, Nicole, from LA. She introduced her sleeping infant daughter to Elizabeth. Nicole said it would be a several weeks before she would return to the circuit.

More than an hour later, and after midnight, it was Deborah’s turn from the #13 start position. No other rider after Elizabeth had rode clear. The second fastest time on course was a full 14 seconds behind with penalty points. Deborah hoped to reverse the trend and force a jump-off. “She’s notorious for setting a ridiculous pace, especially if she starts early in the draw. Lilith is the perfect horse to execute that kind of strategy. But, she can do a change of pace and ride very conservatively to set-up or make a jump-off. Again, Lilith is the perfect horse to execute the strategy. It depends if Elizabeth is a ta-may-toe or ta-mah-toe. If she’s neither, she has us by the scruff. Just wave off and ride another day.”

It seemed Elizabeth had the field by the scruff. Deborah decided to follow Elizabeth’s riding line, but not match her time. Move for move, she matched. Riding more conservatively, Deborah still posted the second fastest time on course at 69.72. More importantly, she forced a jump-off.

It would be another 20-30 minutes before Tara’s turn at #22. In between, three of the four professionals in the field had their turn. Each had beautiful rounds, but dropped a single rail along the way, in different parts of the course.

The rain began to fall in earnest when Tara’s turn came at 12:50 am, Sunday morning. Before she could ride, a stoppage was called to check the condition of the course with the rain falling more steadily. The footing was continuing to stay firm. With six riders remaining, it was decided to push ahead to completion. Tara was cleared to enter the start area.

Shortly after 1:00 am, Tara entered the course. She attacked the course, much in the same manner as Elizabeth. Her time splits at 16.07 and 33.98 were close. Tara knew she would have to step it up to overtake Elizabeth’s lead. They rattled the rails hard on #10 and #11, but they stayed in place. Cameron was giving his all. They crossed the finish timers clear at 62.44.

The jump-off was shaping up to be another family affair, with the three fastest times on the course. Rich, the remaining professional, and the last rider, hoped to join them in the jump-off. His time splits over the first half of the course were close to Tara’s. When the rail came down on #8, Rich waved off. He wouldn’t be joining the jump-off.

If anyone had the advantage, it was Tara. More than two hours had elapsed since Elizabeth rode; Lilith would need serious warm-up time. Comet would need warm-up time too since more than an hour had elapsed since Deborah rode. While they had been in similar situations, this was the first time on a cool, rainy night. At a disadvantage, both Elizabeth and Deborah needed to be more strategic in their approach to the jump-off. Griffin’s advice to Elizabeth and Deborah, see how the horses were after a standard warm-up. If they seem to be still cold, withdraw. It wasn’t worth to risk a muscle tear, or something more catastrophic.

Watching the warm-up, Griffin thought Lilith and Comet were ready.

When Elizabeth brought Lilith out for her warm-up canter around the jump-off course, there was a smattering of cheers and applause from those spectators who hung tough through the delays. The jump-off course was the four oxer combinations, finishing with the triple oxer combination. There was nothing fast about it. A strategic ride. Elizabeth patiently worked Lilith through the jump-off course. They finished clear at 39.58.

Next was Deborah. It seemed she was headed to similar finish when a rail went down on the last oxer combination. Deborah waved off before reaching the the triple oxer. By her reaction, her disappointment was evident. The handful of spectators applauded her effort.

With Tara remaining, Elizabeth nervously watched from the exit area. Tara, too, was patiently working Cameron through the jump-off. Ahead on the clock, Tara had the advantage. Over the triple oxer combination, rail down. Tara was in disbelief. She was so close.

In the exit area, Elizabeth embraced Tara tightly. “I’m so sorry, Tara. You did an incredible piece of riding tonight. The delays, and all …”

Summer In The Rockies: On Home Ground

“It is just another venue,” Trish commented. “Competing on home ground holds no special advantage. Picking up a win, or two, is nice. The higher expectations of performing well, it creates unneeded pressure. Especially with young riders.”

full speed practice with Deborah and Captain Andrew (CHP, Jul 16 2021)

Competing close to home has been a mixed bag for the daughters. As beginners in the children’s ranks, Deborah and Elizabeth did fairly well. When they became novices, again, they fared well. Entering the junior ranks when they turned 14, it was entirely more difficult. They were competing with those who were just as good, if not better, than they were. To be better, Deborah and Elizabeth needed to be better across the board. Riding, preparation, work ethic. They weren’t short on talent or mindset. They needed to step up their game.

Separately, Tara was proving herself worthy of the Comeback Rider of the Year award she earned in 2006. She was driven. She had a lot to prove to herself, a lot to prove to others. Deborah and Elizabeth love and admire those qualities in her. Moreover, they love her mental toughness. “Show me anyone who could come back from what Tara went through, and I’ll show you a liar and a fool.” Tara had plenty of doubts; Mark and Trish didn’t. Deborah and Elizabeth didn’t. Tara thought she may have been reaching the ceiling of her riding talent, progressively finishing lower on the leader board with each outing. She didn’t want to be forever remembered as that little girl who suffered a horrific accident at her first competition. The persistent whispering chipped away at her self-confidence.

Laurie had received an offer in trauma surgery at a major medical center in North Carolina. She thought Tara may need a change in scenery, certainly be away from the whispering. Trish still had plenty of ties in hunter/jumper circles there, perhaps she could recommend a good instructor/coach. Trish’s former coach, though retired, always kept his eyes open for new talent. She thought Walker would come out of retirement for Tara. “He’ll push you hard. You’ll work hard. You’ll probably practice for a year to 18 months before you’ll see another show ring. When you do, you’ll be ready to shine. And, you’ll be better than I ever was.”

Tara really didn’t want to move. All of her friends were here, notably Deborah and Elizabeth. She was very tight with them. But, it seemed North Carolina was destined to be the fresh start. On the eve of accepting the North Carolina offer, University of Colorado Hospital made Laurie an offer. “Do we stay, or do we go? If we stay, you’ll need to do what Mr. Walker said, what Trish has said, put those whisperers forever out of mind. They owe you nothing, you don’t owe them anything.”

With Tara staying, Trish decided to team her with Deborah and Elizabeth. They genuinely liked each other. Having them train, practice and compete together, apart from the other students, is what they needed. She would teach them the same way as Mr. Walker trained her. Trish said they would be taking one year off from showing. “The only riding you’ll be doing is the practice ring.” The off-saddle work was going to be hard too. “It’ll be like the hardest subject you’re doing in school. I’m going to test you and quiz you.”

Trish preached patience and focus to the three girls. “Winning, the awards, the accolades will take care of themselves. Work on the things you need to work on. Study the things you need to study. Trish recognized the talent they possessed. Greg, a professional coached by Trish, told her they had the potential to dominate the sport for years. “If they stay in the sport, Trish, they will rewrite the record book,” he said. Riding on the Rolex professional tour, Greg had competed with some of the best. “They aren’t your typical rider on a hot streak. They are more than that.”

“Griffin, I hate this place,” said Elizabeth, handing off her iPod. “Boots.” Griffin gave them once last wipe to remove the dust. “How’s your wrist?” Elizabeth wiggled the fingers on her right hand to show Griffin she was good to go. “Shades.” Per custom, Elizabeth tapped her helmet to signal she was ready. “One for the start area. 617, Ramos, Elizabeth Ksenia USA.”

Elizabeth calls CHP a difficult venue. “I don’t mind competing at difficult venues, with difficult courses. They make the sport exciting and interesting at the highest level. Most of the sport does not compete at the highest level. I want that little kid who is only riding one event during show week to have the time of their life. They’re not looking to ribbon. I want them to go home excited, saying ‘… and you know what … and, and …’ They’re the magic of the equestrian way. CHP makes it difficult to experience that.”

“Hey, E, hate this place.”

Elizabeth smiled back at Griffin. She promptly won her first event at last week’s show, her first since 2009.

Tonight, she rides for perfection in the Grand Prix.